Central PA 4th Fest puts on an outsized Independence Day celebration months in the making, thanks to dedicated residents who donate their time – and more
Frank Savino is a patriotic guy, and the Fourth of July has always been his favorite holiday. For nearly 25 years, Savino has enjoyed watching fireworks with family and friends at the Central PA 4th Fest.
Before the 2014 show, Savino had a thought.
“I had an idea for 31 words that I'd like to see added to the whole event,” he says. “And I went to the [festival] board and said, ‘You know, before everybody sings the national anthem and you lower the flag, what if everybody in the VIP [viewing] area and everybody listening on the radio heard and stood up and said the Pledge of Allegiance?’ And they were like, ‘Great idea. And you're in charge.’”
Savino took that volunteer role and ran with it. His inspiration was to get young people involved.
“The idea of adding the pledge came from scouting celebrating 100 years of being in State College,” says Savino, who has volunteered with the Boy Scouts, among other community organizations. “So, we had Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies all up on the stage, from 6-year-olds maybe to 17-year-olds, leading the entire audience and everybody on the radio in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It's pretty cool now for me to see that this is just a part of the program. … Every year we look for a new youth group. We haven't repeated yet.”
Just as the pledge has become a staple of 4th Fest, so, too, has Savino.
After several years and a growing role as a volunteer, Savino is now in his first year as the festival’s executive director. He leads an army of volunteers that will number in the hundreds by the time the first rocket is fired into the sky over Happy Valley on the night of July 4 outside Beaver Stadium, with 60,000 to 80,000 people watching. The most involved of the volunteers have been hard at work preparing for this year’s event since the smoke of the last rockets of the 2018 celebration dissipated.
After all, pulling off a daylong event that begins with road races, includes a parade and entertainment ranging from musical acts to log-rollers, and culminates in a spectacular fireworks show is a major undertaking.
What makes it more impressive is that aside from Savino, the organizers are all volunteers. That even includes the folks who set up and set off the fireworks show – complete with synchronized music – that has been called one of the best in the nation by the Wall Street Journal.
“If it wasn’t for the volunteers … the event would not happen,” Savino says, adding that he hopes people “realize what this community is doing to step up to pull off an event that you're not going to see in a community our size.”
‘You sleep hard the next day’
Take Michael Madeira, for example. After the grand finale of the fireworks show lights up the sky and those 60,000-plus spectators head home, Madeira and a small crew of other volunteers have only just begun their evening. They’ll work until the wee hours of July 5, cleaning up.
“Probably the hardest physical labor that takes place is after the event, the trash cleanup,” says Madeira, chairman of the festival’s operations committee. “But it's also fun. At one o'clock in the morning, we’re the only people there and you're running around cleaning up garbage. So, it's enjoyable, and you sleep hard the next day.”
“Well, some people sleep the next day,” he adds, noting that he’s up again in the morning, making sure equipment gets back to where it belongs.
As operations chair, Madeira is something of a jack of all trades, working closely with officials at Penn State and elsewhere to coordinate such essential nuts-and-bolts things as water, electricity, fencing, traffic barricades, and yes, trash cans, among many other duties.
But it’s an effort that brings great satisfaction to Madeira, a former Centre County district attorney who now works in the Attorney General’s Office.
“It's so much fun when you get to be a part of a group of people, an all-volunteer group, that puts on something that tens of thousands of people come to see and is one of the top five or 10 shows in the nation, right here in central PA,” says Madeira, whose family has joined him in volunteering at the festival.
The Fourth of July celebration in the area dates to 1927, when the Alpha Fire Company put on a carnival. The Alpha celebration, which included a parade, continued for about 50 years, but by the 1970s, increasing demands on the Alphas’ all-volunteer force put a strain on their ability to produce the event. In 1978, the State College Sunrise Kiwanis Club took on the celebration and through the 1980s presented what the 4th Fest website describes as a modest fireworks show.
In 1991, the torch was passed to WZWW radio and United Federal Bank. The event was produced by Dan Barker and his family for the community.
“That's when it really went from just a fireworks show to being fully choreographed to music,” Savino says.
As the event moved into the 21st century, “everybody looked at it and said, ‘You know what, this thing is perpetual, it's growing; we need to form an organization that will keep this moving in the community.’ That's when Central PA 4th Fest came about as a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit organization] and it's been going strong ever since,” he says.
A parade was reintroduced about eight years ago.
When that started, “I don’t know if there were 30 elements; we didn't have any marching bands,” Savino says. “But it started with an idea, and boy, it just grew.”
The march, which is a celebration of community and features youth groups, first responders, and other local heroes, among others, begins at 2 in the afternoon at the State College Municipal Building and ends near the Bryce Jordan Center on the Penn State campus.
That’s when the musical acts and other entertainment kick into high gear, leading into that big evening fireworks show.
All of that, of course, comes at a cost of money, services, and manpower. That’s where the community comes in.
“Our budget is between $350,000 and $400,000. This year, our fireworks are going to cost about $75,000. We know security is going to run $35,000,” Savino says. “Right there is almost a third of our budget.”
Special performers, such as the lumberjacks coming this year from Minnesota, also need to be paid.
In addition to direct monetary sponsorships, the festival also benefits from about $150,000-$175,000 of in-kind donations of such things as equipment and food for volunteers, Savino says.
“The community really comes forward with not only the cash sponsorships, but the in-kind sponsorships, too,” he says.
And then there are those volunteers who make it all come together. Savino and Madeira say organizers can always use more help.
“All of that background stuff that happens, we can use volunteers for,” Madeira says, adding that, “if there’s a challenge, that would be it.”
“Anybody who volunteers for 4th Fest is going to work,” Savino says. “But the beauty of it is, you can pick and choose, you don't have to work the day of July Fourth.”
He notes that much preparation work occurs in the months and weeks leading to the big day.
‘It’s going to be pretty spectacular’
Probably the largest contingent is the volunteers who work to set up the fireworks, Madeira says.
The people running the fireworks field, which is just beyond the outfield fence of Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, have licenses and train other volunteers to help with the show, Savino says. The setup is quite intricate.
“Every shell has a serial number, every tube they go in has a serial number, every cap that covers them has a serial number,” he says. “So, when it says red, it goes red. It really is pretty impressive.”
This year’s show promises to be even more impressive, with a new type of shell being used.
“It’s like with Christmas lights, going from regular lights to LED. Now, am I nervous about new shells in my first year? Of course I am,” Savino says with a laugh. “But the pyro team assured us it's going to be pretty spectacular.”
Savino says organizers are also hoping to introduce a VIP tailgate this year, in addition to the VIP parking and a VIP viewing area close to the action that have been featured for years.
“If it's not this year, it'll definitely be next year. We're going to have a VIP tailgate where people can get a tent, tables, chairs. It can be the basic tent, tables, and chairs, all the way up to an air conditioned tent with TVs and fully catered. It's whatever you would like. If we kick it off this year, we expect it to grow.”
A common theme from Madeira and Savino is the satisfaction they feel from their involvement in organizing 4th Fest.
“I love that there is that much attention to a great family day, celebrating our country, and having people say, ‘That's amazing,’” Madeira says. “That's rewarding.”
Savino adds, “It's really a family community event that we're trying to promote, to bring people together for a day, put aside the politics, and celebrate the independence of our country.”
And speaking of celebrations, just wait for 2026, America’s 250th birthday. The 4th Fest folks are already thinking about it.
“It’s gonna be big,” Savino says.
To volunteer, or for more information, go to centralpa4thfest.org.
Mark Brackenbury is editorial director of Town&Gown.